Tom Cruise has an age gap problem and it mirrors Hollywood’s bias against older actresses.
American Made premieres this week, bringing two reunions with it: Tom Cruise and Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman, and Tom Cruise and his ever-growing age gap with his female co-stars. Sarah Wright (who plays Cruise’s wife in the film) was born in 1983 just a couple months after the premiere of Risky Business, making her 22 years Cruise’s junior. Which is somewhat uncomfortable.
It’s a well-known fact that Hollywood likes to pair older men with younger women. And to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with an age gap between two consenting adults. According to the 2013 US Census, 4.8 percent of heterosexual married couples included a husband 10-15 years his wife’s senior.
The problem, rather, is that Hollywood doesn’t really care about showcasing the stories of that 4.8 percent so much as normalizing the expectation that women are only romance material when they’re in their mid-20s/early-30s, whereas men are free to age and remain conceivably fuckable.
Of the leading men frequently cited in critiques of the age gap, Tom Cruise is the highest-paid. Consequently, the way he’s represented on screen matters. He is worth the deep dive. And deep dive I did. I crunched the numbers for every single Tom Cruise movie, comparing his age relative to that of the actresses playing his love interests over time.
All told, Cruise’s age gap mirrors, and indeed confirms, the larger critique of Hollywood’s bias against older actresses. This isn’t just anecdotally-sourced rhetoric, by the way. There’s more and more statistical evidence showing how women age out of Hollywood. Time and The Pudding, for instance, do a great job at visualizing how more roles and dialogue are available to men as they age, where the opposite is true for women.
To beleaguer the point, this inverted trajectory is super apparent when it comes to love interests. While dudes get to be romantically viable well into their Entrapment years, Hollywood treats an actress hitting her mid-30’s as the equivalent of Melisandre taking off her necklace in Game of Thrones.
A couple quick observations and methodological notes:
When collecting data, I took a page from Vulture’s stats work on the age gap and measured age relative to the day the film in question was released in the US.
Broadly, I took “love interest” to mean any character the movie explicitly endorsed as a romantic partner for Cruise. This means, for example, that while I did include Cruise’s wife from The Firm, I did not include the woman he’s tricked into sleeping with. Likewise, I discounted exes and old flames like Vanilla Sky’s Julie and War of the Worlds’ Mary Ann. Also, despite being a film that ends with a triumphant joyride into San Francisco, whatever was going on with Interview with a Vampire’s Louis was just too subtextual to include. Cruise’s not-so interpretive co-op pole dance with Julianne Hough, 26 years Cruise’s junior, was excluded because it only exists in Rock of Ages‘ extended cut. Hopefully that all makes sense.
Of his filmography, Cruise is definitively without-love interest in 9 of his 42 IMDB-listed movies: Endless Love (1981), Taps (1981), The Outsiders (1981), Interview with a Vampire (1994), Magnolia (1999), Collateral (2004), War of the Worlds (2005), Lions for Lambs (2007), and Tropic Thunder (2008).
There are three instances in Cruise’s career where he catches feelings for a woman older than him by five years or more. All three take place within the first decade of his career. Whereas Cruise’s seniority in later films goes unmentioned, these movies go out of their way to call attention to their age gap by playing up the “illicitness” of the relationship. In Losin’ It, the very divorced, adult, not sober Kathy helps the teenage Woody loose his virginity. In Top Gun, Charlie sets multiple professional “I don’t date students” boundaries only to break the fuck out of them for Maverick. And María Elena, the sex worker from Born on the Fourth of July, betrays Ron’s newfound feelings by having other clients in the brothel. All to say, in the rare instances where Cruise falls for older women it’s borderline illegal.
There’s one final wrinkle I need to mention. At a Hollywood Reporter roundtable, Aaron Sorkin was asked to talk about his worst experience as a screenwriter. Sorkin replied:
There was an executive on [A Few Good Men] who gave me a note: “If Tom Cruise and Demi Moore aren’t going to sleep with each other, why is Demi Moore a woman?” I said the obvious answer: Women have purposes other than to sleep with Tom Cruise.
Ignoring that the third draft of Sorkin’s screenplay ends with Kaffee successfully asking Galloway on a date, Sorkin rightfully notes an obvious fact that has since become a sort of recurring trope: female characters presented as “Tom Cruise’s equal” are often interpreted as “competent, sexy young woman I’m surprised Tom Cruise never made out with.” The roll call so far consists of the aforementioned Galloway, Helen Rodin from Jack Reacher, Ilsa Faust from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, and Turner from Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Because they fail to qualify as love interests, these women don’t appear in the dataset. But before we crack out the “Tom Cruise is empowering” champagne I would like to begrudgingly point out that 3 out of these 4 women are 18 to 22 years younger than Cruise. I too want Rebecca Ferguson to thrive as an action star—just, preferably not in a way that plays into Hollywood’s age/gender bias.
With that out of the way—let’s look at some stats! If you’re interested, all my hard data is available in this Google doc.
p.s. I’d be remiss not to mention that Cruise’s film debut, Endless Love, features the tagline “She is 15. He is 17. The love every parent fears.” Cruise only has a teeny-tiny part (and teeny-tiny cut-off jeans), but this is some prophetic nonsense nonetheless. Anyway here’s a clip of pre-fame Tom Cruise explaining how to fake-burn a woman’s house down to get her to love you.